Rethinking courses

I recommend both this article about plagiarism in Coursera’s courses but also the comment thread, which makes a few interesting connections between the specific issue of plagiarism happening in these courses, and the broader discussion about MOOCs and their role in the higher education universe.

The obvious question, posed but not answered in any of this, is why would students plagiarize in a free, non-credit course that they are taking entirely voluntarily? If you want to just watch the lectures, or just do the reading, there’s absolutely nothing in the structure of these courses to prevent it. And, completing the course gets you nothing more than a confirmation email with a lovely PDF “certificate” attached. My suspicion is that it isn’t that far off from why people cheat at games, even solitary, non-social games. As one comment puts it, we want to feel good about ourselves. Having signed up for a course, giving up on it because writing a paper is hard feels like failure, whereas plagiarizing is easier and makes us feel like we succeeded.

But then the broader questions come in. The article points out the vast cultural diversity within the courses and focuses on the “teachable moment”. Instructors in these courses are going to have to be much more explicit about underlying assumptions about how academic work should be done, and instruction on things like plagiarism and academic integrity probably needs to be integrated into every course, because every course may be the first one a student is taking. At heart, this seems to tie back to the lack of a prerequisite structure. At a traditional college, I can assume you took freshman comp and learned something about plagiarism. In Coursera, as it is set up so far, that’s not a valid assumption. For computer science or math courses, the prerequisite issue is more one of if the student is prepared, but if you sign up for cryptography ignoring the statement that you need to have some statistics background, the issue will quickly self-correct as you realize that you can’t understand the lectures let alone do the assignments. In a literature course, it is easier to muddle along and convince yourself you’re getting the idea, even if you don’t have the requisite background.

While it wasn’t the main topic of the article, this was also the first time I read anything about how essays are graded in these courses (which – they are peer-graded with, it sounds like, no instructor involvement). It immediately makes sense from a cost-savings perspective. And, I can see how it makes sense from a “wisdom of the crowd” perspective. Plus, peer review is a valuable exercise even in traditional classes – there’s a lot to be gained by reading and reflecting on another students’ work. But, the wisdom of the crowd only works if you either have the entire crowd react to each piece, or if you are only interested in the assessments being reasonable on a crowd-level (with high tolerance for a handful of inaccurate outliers). Both are problems here: you aren’t going to get each student to review the hundreds of other essays to get a crowd response to each work, and if you’re the student who gets an outlier review, that radically decreases the value of the course for you (and, perhaps, reduces your motivation to work hard, and avoid plagiarism…).

Finally, I found one comment particularly interesting (from “husky1”): “I am curious, can students cheat when there is no grading standard? And, why would you have grading standards in a non-credit course? Feedback on the material submitted by the student is one thing. If you really believe MOOCs are a poitive thing then I am not sure “plagerisim” should be a concern. I suspect even someone who cuts and pastes material from say Wikapedia is actually learning something about the topic they are addressing. And isn’t the point here for each person to get what they want out of participating in the course?”

What jumps out at me is that this comment assumes that plagiarism is a concept that is only relevant in the world of graded assignments – that it is a construct of academic assessment, not a real-world principle to be followed. More generally, it highlights the degree to which we’re still figuring out what these MOOCs are. Are they just about putting information out there to help people who want to learn? Ought they hold students to some level of academic standard? In what sense are they a “course”? I see a tension between people signing up to “get what they want” out of the course, and the idea of instructor-created learning outcomes for a course. If there is a fact you want to know, or a skill you need to develop, you can read a book, watch a video, or participate in an online “course” that will help walk you through the gaining of that particular collection of factual knowledge or well-defined skill. But, to my mind, a course is a more completely defined experience, and part of what you are getting is the determination by someone with more expertise than you as to what one should get out of the course. I am confident that the majority, if not all, of the content covered in these courses is available through other sources (books, articles, etc.). There is value in having someone with expertise filter the content, present it in a more appealing video format, and wrap it in explanation and context – that is certainly part of what makes a “course”. But if you lose the idea that the course has been designed to achieve some set of goals established by the instructor, and instead allow that any goal that a student might have in participating must be equally valid and supported, I think you may have lost the “course-ness” of of the course.

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